Green masterpieces: A peek inside your neighbors' garden oases

They’re neighborhood showpieces, serene retreats, abundant providers, and a joy to the senses.

A well-tended and purposefully planned garden can excel in both aesthetics and function. It’s enough to make a neighbor envious, or perhaps just fortunate to live near such natural splendor.

With the help of Howard County Master Gardeners and the University of Maryland Extension, Howard Magazine got a peek inside some of the county’s most impressive and unique gardens, and we talked to their owners about the passion, purpose and dedication that goes into each green masterpiece.

Wild for Wildflowers

Christine McComas inherited a love of gardening from her father, who tended flower and vegetable gardens.

“It’s a nurturing way of caring for the environment and helps you to notice the small things,” says McComas, 47.  “It’s a wonderful legacy to pass on.”

When McComas and her family moved to their current home in Woodbine nine years ago, the property was a blank slate.

“There was absolutely nothing on it,” she says. “I’ve always loved birds, so I put up a birdfeeder, but none of the birds came because there was no habitat — no resting place, no water.”

So McComas took it upon herself to build a home for all kinds of birds.

As a Master Gardener, she’s learned about biodiversity and how to care for her garden in a less toxic manner, which is better for the environment. Her 3.5-acre wildflower garden includes a mix of native plants and warm season grasses. Flowers include pink tree peonies, cosmos, goldenrods, oxeye daisies, black-eyed Susans, zinnias, lilies, sunflowers and more.

“I love to sit out there and see the birds and the bugs,” she says, adding that tending the garden provides her with a relaxing escape. “That’s my time away. I don’t see it as a chore.”

A grant from the county Soil Conservation District’s Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program helped McComas create her wildflower meadow. Her property also is certified through the Maryland Bay-Wise program, which promotes landscaping that’s beneficial to the region’s water quality.

“A Master Gardener will come out and look for activities in your garden that support the environment,” she says of the certification process.

McComas, who previously worked for theKellogg Co., now works as a part-time certified professional horticulturist for the University of Maryland’s Home and Garden Information Center, thus combining her passion for gardening with her career.

“I never in my wildest dreams thought I could turn my hobby — a pastime — into a career,” she says. “I learn something new every day.”

For McComas, gardening is a spiritual experience. “It’s such a peaceful thing to do,” she says. “It reminds me that we’re part of a bigger world. It really helps put things in perspective.”

Backyard to Table

Kent Phillips began his 2,500-square-foot garden to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for his family.

More than 35 years later, the Clarksville resident is still providing. The bounty extends to a new generation, as his twin daughters and grandchildren reap the benefits of his labor.

“I decided that in order to feed them the best and freshest vegetables, you have to grow them yourself,” he says.

A former economist, Phillips, 64, retired four years ago and became a Howard County Master Gardener. He volunteers to teach people how to grow vegetables through the University of Maryland’s “Grow It, Eat It” program. “One of the things we do is basically teach people how to grow vegetables and take care of the environment,” he says.

Phillips’ garden includes nine raised beds, about 70 feet long and 4 feet wide. One bed is dedicated to blueberries and another to raspberries. He also has beds for asparagus, herbs and annual vegetables. “I raised all my own transplants for the garden under lights in my basement,” he says.

“The stuff that I grow tastes 100-percent better than anything you can find in the store,” Phillips says. “People are so used to buying in the store, you don’t realize you can grow it yourself. It’s just a whole lot more nutritious and they taste better.”

One benefit Phillips enjoys from gardening is regular exercise. “When you have a garden as large as mine, you’re working a couple of hours a day. Between moving compost and weeding, it keeps you active,” he says. “If you want a good workout, go out and turn your compost pile.”

View from the Top

In 2005, Joyce Prange and her husband, John, did some major remodeling to their Columbia home. An addition onto the back of their house required them to choose either a pitched or flat roof. The couple decided on a flat roof — and made it green.

“There are two types of green roofs,” Joyce Prange explains. “One is intensive, which allows you to grow larger plants. Ours is extensive, which allows you to grow shallower, rooted plants.”

Typically, an extensive roof features plants such as sedums, according to Prange. “These are probably the most popular plants because they are succulent and after the first year of watering them and taking care of them, you don’t have to water them anymore.”

Now well-established, the Pranges’ 325-square-foot, three-level rooftop garden is a delight for all seasons, with 10 varieties of sedums and purple Talinum calycinum, or fameflower.

“There are some flowering sedums, some chosen for winter interest,” Prange says. “In the spring, we have anywhere from pink to yellow to white flowers.”

Despite her home’s eye-catching rooftop, Prange, who is in her 60s and works part-time for the Maryland Foundation of Dentistry for the Handicapped, isn’t someone who has been practicing the skill all her life.

She began in 1997, inspired by her parents. “My mother always liked to garden,” she says. “She was the leader for our junior garden club, I remember, as I was growing up.”

“To view the green roof out of our windows is very pleasant and relaxing, especially in the spring, summer and fall,” says Prange. “It’s been a fun and, we think, successful project. Much nicer than looking out at shingles!”

Native Oasis

Natalie Brewer’s Ellicott City home hardly resembles the property she purchased 10 years ago. At that time, there wasn’t much in the way of natural elements, and several of the trees were invasive species (not native to or beneficial to the local environment).

Since Brewer, 42, began gardening the 1.5-acre property three years ago, she’s focused mainly on plants native to the Piedmont region, which includes Howard County. “My agenda is to teach the world about native plants,” she says.

Today, Brewer’s garden is designed to attract a variety of wildlife: turtles, frogs, snakes, birds and butterflies. “Everything is for the wildlife,” she says.

When Brewer was younger, the first book she bought for herself was about African violets. “So then I started indoor gardening,” she says. “My grandmother was an avid gardener. I grew up being outside, scouting and camping. I’ve always loved animals and birds and insects. Gardening is another way to see them up close.”

Because of her love for plants and animals, Brewer’s garden is entirely organic. “Fertilizer is bad for the environment and the wildlife, especially with us being so close to the Chesapeake Bay,” she says.

Some of the plants in Brewer’s garden include native azaleas, such as the Pinxterbloom Azalea. “It works well in the sun and shade,” says Brewer. “It’s a really, really nice plant and the hummingbirds love it, too.”

Her garden also features native asters, goldenrods, dogwoods and redbuds, among other plants. “The red maple is one of my favorite trees,” Brewer says. “It’s native and its black cherries can feed over 200 different butterflies, moths and more than 40 types of birds. It’s great for pollinators, too. And the caterpillars provide food for the birds.”

In her spare time, Brewer writes about native plants for Mother Nature’s, a wildlife feed store in Columbia, and Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville. She also captures images of her garden for her company, Weeds and Wildlife Photography, which she started about a year ago. “I love to show people how beautiful our native species are,” she says.

Her love for nature has also extended to a children’s book, “An Oak Tree’s Not Just a Tree,” and lectures for adults and children alike at local libraries and schools.

“There are definitely health benefits to gardening,” says Brewer. “It’s great exercise and you get out in the fresh air. There’s no lack of vitamin D.”

Since suffering a stroke three years ago, Brewer also finds gardening to be therapeutic.

“Being able to go out into the garden helped me feel better,” she says. “Being outside really helps. Gardening helped me when I was ill and during stressful periods of my life, plus I love all the little critters.”

For more information about the Maryland Master Gardener Program, go to or call the Home and Garden Information Center at 410-531-5556. 


Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad